It’s normal, healthy in fact, to feel sad, especially in overwhelming situations. It’s able to help you handle otherwise frightening thoughts. These feelings usually go away after a couple of days, but in the instance of depression, it gets a lot more complicated.
Worldwide 350 million people (5% of the population) suffer from depression, and in the U.S. it’s at least 16 million people that have suffered from a minimum of one major depressive episode, according to a 2012 consensus.
Depression is complex and can cause lifelong pains, but what exactly is depression, and what causes it? What separates it from other negative emotions, and what effects does it have on overall health? To answer these questions we’ll need to separate the fact from the fiction, understand how to recognize it, and find ways to treat it.
Depression Vs. Sadness
You first have to understand what is and isn’t depression before you can start to understand what the effects it has on your health.
The definition of depression is “a feeling of severe despondency and dejection” however the medical community sees it as a mental disorder. It is more than just “feeling sad”. It is a combination of many negative emotions, including helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness, anger, fear, etc., and these feelings are long lasting. Since each person is an individual with their own experiences it’s important that we know and understand what’s true and what’s only a myth in regards to depression.
Some people also think of depression as a type of grief, but that isn’t fully true. Depression and grief may have some relation, however they aren’t always found together. Grief is normally positive and negative memories mixed together, but depression is either solely negative memories, or negative memories and positive memories that have been twisted to become negative. While grief will almost never change your self-esteem, depression with twist it into a negative view. Grief is also usually triggered by something tragic, while depression doesn’t have any real rhyme or reason.
The Myths of Depression
“Depression isn’t a real illness.”
There is an ongoing stigma in American culture that depression isn’t a true illness, which is completely false. Arguably, the greatest threat to those with depression is the taboo behind it. It is generally seen as a subject that should not be discussed. This dangerous mentality can easily discourage a sick individual from pursuing treatment or help.
“Only women are diagnosed with depression.”
This is anything except true. Yes it’s more common for women to be diagnosed with depression, but that may be related to social stigmas and cultural views. All genders are affected by depression, and if we’re looking at the numbers then it should be noted that men are 1.9 times more likely to commit suicide than women.
“Antidepressants will always fix depression.”
Depression is absolutely treatable, and there are a number of different ways to treat it without the use of depressants. Like we said earlier though, everyone is different in how depression affects them. While medications may work for some, others may need something more, such as psychotherapy. In some cases a patient may be allergic to medications, or have some of the extreme side effects, meaning they have to use therapy instead, in others it’s all they need. There’s no blanket cure for depression.
“You can just snap out of it.”
Statements like this come from a perception of choice. Nobody would choose to be depressed. It’s not a thing that can be turned on and off like a light switch. It involves your brain chemistry, function, and structure, and can be caused by a number of different sources, both environmental and biological.
“It’s caused by trauma.”
While it isn’t incorrect, it isn’t completely true either. Your genealogy plays just as much of a role in your depression as your environment does. Depression that was dormant may be triggered by environmental sources. In other cases, depression doesn’t always have a logical source. Even positive influences can cause depression. It’s not just being sad, it’s having your self worth and value skewed.
“Talking will just make you more depressed.”
This is part of that taboo feeling in America. It is often seen as a sign of weakness, and that talking about it will only reinforce self destructive habits and negative thoughts. The exact opposite thing happens though. People who talk with someone, anyone, can get that help to navigate through their more complex emotions, and being able to have that open discussion could mean the difference between life and death.
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- Genetics: Depression, along with most other physical and mental disorders, is able to be passed down from parent to child. For example, if a twin sibling has depression, there is a 70 percent chance that the other twin will also have depression.
- Biochemistry: Depression is the result of chemicals in your brain, which can be influenced by other things outside of trauma, such as poor diet, genetic conditions, blood sugar imbalances, medical illness, hormonal imbalances, lack of exercise, medications with side effects, drug and alcohol use. All of these can cause depression.
- Personality: There are certain personalities that are more likely to have depression. It someone have perfectionist tendencies, is self critical, pessimistic, easily stressed or overwhelmed, or has low self-esteem, then they are at a higher risk of developing depression.
- Environment: Continuous exposure to violence, neglect, abuse or poor living conditions are obvious examples, and those who are subjected to these conditions are more vulnerable to depression.
What are some Signs of Depression?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), an individual must suffer the following symptoms consistently over the course of a 2-week period, including but not limited to:
- Spends most of the day, almost every day, in a depressed mood, as indicated by an observer (e.g., appears tearful) or by the individual themself (e.g., feels hopeless, empty, sad). (Note: In children and adolescents, can be irritable mood.)
- As noted by the individual or an observer, a markedly diminished pleasure or interest in all or most all activities during the majority of a day, almost every day.
- Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain (e.g., a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month), or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day. (Note: In children, consider failure to make expected weight gain.)
- Almost every day experiencing insomnia or hypersomnia.
- As observed by others: psychomotor agitation or retardation most days.
- Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.
- Feelings of worthlessness, or excessive or inappropriate guilt (which may be delusional) nearly every day (not merely self-reproach or guilt about being sick).
- Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day (either by subjective account or as observed by others).
- Recurrent thoughts of death, thoughts of suicide without a plan, planning a suicide, and attempting suicide.
Along with having these symptoms, these symptoms must cause significant distress or impairment in social or occupational environments, or other important areas in which function is disrupted.
The Physical Impact
Now that the definition of depression has been cleared up we can move on to the physical impacts of it. It obvious has an affect on our brain, and this is both chemically and biologically. Depression can cause permanent emotional and cognitive impairment by causing your brain to decrease in volume. Depression is able to leave a victim in a warped life perspective permanently. This can cause anything from sociopathic behaviors to suicidal tendencies.
It affects more than just your brain. It’s been shown that depression can cause cardiovascular diseases in the heart. Depression causes an inappropriate amount of adrenaline to be released, which damages the cardiovascular system over time. Blood clots and heart attack are also increased in risk due to arteries and blood vessels becoming stressed.
Along with that, people who suffer from depression and other illnesses (like lupus, heart disease, cancer, alzheimer’s, HIV and AIDS) can worsen the symptoms of both depression and the co-existing illness. At worst, depression can cause physical pain to occur, including irregularities in sleep patterns, chronic fatigue, irregular appetites, hindered thinking and movement, muscle and joint pains, headaches and migraines. Depression has a major physical strain on the body, and in conjunction with other illnesses, can endlessly loop and feed into one another.
What’s the Social Impact of Depression?
Depression affects social interactions in a major way. It can lead to very destructive behaviors, such as substance use and abuse. It’s common knowledge that those who abuse substances like drugs and alcohol often force themselves into isolation. Not only does this behavior perpetually fuel their need for said substance, but it can force themselves to have an almost codependent relationship with their depression. Often these people will have such a low view of themselves that they will never seek out help, or may even flat out refuse it. They see themselves as a burden on society, and would rather keep their own troubles to themselves.
This sort of behavior can not only lower their performance at school or work, but it could completely destroy their personal relationships. In cases like these, emotional foundations of support are weakened, thereby increasing the likelihood of the victim to go into seclusion. They now lack support at home, no longer see the bigger picture, and thusly stop caring and end up dropping significantly in their work quality and quantity at their jobs or schools. Humans are social, and they perform best when they have that support system in place. Depression steals these things away from people.
Can You Treat Depression?
Thankfully depression is one of the most treatable mental disorders, and has a variety of methods available. Almost all patients find relief from their symptoms, as about 90% respond positively to treatment.
The most common depression treatment is medication, in particular antidepressants. Antidepressants will modify the chemical composition of the brain, now while that may sound a bit extreme you should remember that these pills won’t act as a sedative. They aren’t habit forming, and don’t cause a stimulating effect on those without depression.
Psychotherapy is used for mild depression, and can involve the individual or those who they have a relationship with and may be directly related, one way or another, to their depression. Psychotherapy allows the patient to talk about unhealthy thoughts in a safe environment, cautiously being guided to personal epiphanies. While the timeframe can range from weeks to years, on average patients find they’ve made significant breakthroughs within 15 sessions.
Patients with biochemical depression may find benefits in hormonal therapy. Sometimes the patient suffers from disorders like hypogonadism or thyroid conditions, and may simply need supplements or medication to help regulate testosterone, estrogen, etc.
Brief seizures are caused by small electric currents when ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) is done, usually done while under general anesthesia. The symptoms of some mental illnesses have been reversed due to ECT changing the chemistry of the brain. This is seen as a last resort treatment, done with patients who didn’t respond to the other treatments. It’s often viewed negatively and become controversial, however it’s done with doctor recommendation and patient consent.